Thursday, 30 January 2014

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

"You're a wizard, Harry!"

I am thirty-six years old. It's time to admit, after years of aspiring to do so, that I will never read the Harry Potter novels. I always have a pile of books to read at any given moment, and there will always be a bunch of books I  want to read more than I want to read something I'm probably too old to appreciate properly. One day, perhaps, I will read them to my children. Until then, well, I'm no hardcore Harry Potter fan, but I enjoy fantasy and traditional British horror stories, so I go into the films with high hopes.

First impressions are of how gratuitously star-studded the cast is. It's utterly ridiculous to fin so many acting knights and dames in one place. Nevertheless, we begin in suburbia, in Surrey, no less, a county which is far too expensive for us mere mortals to live in, and a grotesquely horrid family portrayed superbly by Fiona Shaw and the late Richard Griffiths. They're a family right out of a Roald Dahl novel, so naturally their stepson, Harry, is special. Our point of view, though, is that of Professor McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith, playing a character named after a famously bad poet), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane in an unusual role for him), definitely not that of the "Muggles". We are made to see things from the point of view of those who use magic, which makes us feel as though we're part of said privileged group too.

After a few child-friendly scenes of child abuse, again Roald Dahl-style, Harry gets to go to Hogwarts which is, it seems, a public school, although the presence of regional accents among the staff and pupils speaks of a desire to play down the connotations of social class and treat boarding school simply as a trope of British children's literature, which is fair enough.

Harry gets to shop for magical stuff, not least a wand, in a magical, wondrous space in the middle of London that mortals cannot see; this also belongs to a long tradition in children's literature. The railway platform, the train, and even the location of Hogwarts itself are magical spaces where the mundane and everyday have no place.

We get an inkling of the fact that Harry is destined for greatness by dint of the fact that his wand seems to think so (in a ridiculously minor role for no less an actor than John Hurt), and Hagrid fills him in, like Obi Wan to Luke, on how the evil Voldemort turned to the dark side and killed his parents, but in the meantime he's a mere first year, meeting his future friends Hermione and Ron for the first time and also an enemy, the suitably named Draco Malfoy.

Harry doesn't get picked by the talking hat (what else?) for the sinister-sounding Slytherin house, but instead gets put in the rather chivalrous sounding Gryffindor. . Sadly, as with all schools, he has to do sports (boo!), and it actually quite good at this scary-looking Quidditch thing.

Months pass. Christmas happens. We, and Harry, have been introduced to Hogwarts, so it's time for a plot to happen, based on the eponymous MacGuffin. So there's a showdown, and it's cool; chess, with people as the pieces, where you die if you get taken. Wow. We end with house point being awarded to Harry's house for his heroism and that. And then the school year ends, and he has to go home to his Roald Dahl family...

I enjoyed that. A fantastic kids' film chock full of inspired ideas. Here's hoping the sequels are as good.

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